Here’s a long article from The Guardian about how “Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet” and the alarming state of the “attention economy.”

I didn’t get a smartphone until about 2013 but I can’t imagine life without it now.  I use Maps more than I need to. I love the text string I have going with my girlfriends. I love Instagram, which I tell myself is somehow better than Facebook even though it’s the same company with the same goals. But after I read this, I’ve kept my phone more out of reach than it usually is. Is it time to delete some apps, too? Probably.

The whole article is worth your time–here’s a selection of terrifying quotes:

[The best app design] exploits the same psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive: variable rewards. When we tap those apps with red icons, we don’t know whether we’ll discover an interesting email, an avalanche of “likes”, or nothing at all. It is the possibility of disappointment that makes it so compulsive.

It’s this that explains how the pull-to-refresh mechanism, whereby users swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears, rapidly became one of the most addictive and ubiquitous design features in modern technology. “Each time you’re swiping down, it’s like a slot machine,” [former Google employee Tristan] Harris says. “You don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes it’s a beautiful photo. Sometimes it’s just an ad.”


This was great:

“Facebook and Google assert with merit that they are giving users what they want,” [venture capitalist Roger] McNamee says. “The same can be said about tobacco companies and drug dealers.”

I’ve read/talked a little about this before:

James Williams does not believe talk of dystopia is far-fetched. The ex-Google strategist who built the metrics system for the company’s global search advertising business, he has had a front-row view of an industry he describes as the “largest, most standardised and most centralised form of attentional control in human history”.

The same forces that led tech firms to hook users with design tricks, he says, also encourage those companies to depict the world in a way that makes for compulsive, irresistible viewing. “The attention economy incentivises the design of technologies that grab our attention,” he says. “In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions.”

That means privileging what is sensational over what is nuanced, appealing to emotion, anger and outrage. The news media is increasingly working in service to tech companies, Williams adds, and must play by the rules of the attention economy to “sensationalise, bait and entertain in order to survive”.


Not to make light of this, but by the second time I read the whole article I had John Denver in my head: “Blow up your TV, throw away your paper…”  Maybe blow up your smartphone too?